PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIntended as a group biography, Mr. Williams’s book is at times more \'group\' than \'biography,\' its pages popping with the names of the well-known and forgotten, from the free spirits of the first generation to the variously hued leftists and ex-leftists of the 1930s and ’40s to the academically employed sunseekers of the 1960s ... Mr. Williams’s account is as breezy as a spring day by the shore, an approach that honors the spirit of his seashore colony even as it occasionally disregards the facts ... what’s ultimately more interesting than how much these writers and artists partied is how much they got done anyway ... although The Shores of Bohemia is structured as a kind of lament for the golden days before the Cape was overrun by RVs and clam shacks, Mr. Williams’s own effort is evidence enough that the old fascination still sparkles.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... handsomely printed ... intimate ... If you have ever been intimidated by hiking memoirs—the ones that feature semi-rugged, scruffily bearded males equally adept at climbing waterfalls and kindling a fire with nary a match in sight—then Six Walks, by turns gently self-ironical and shyly lyrical, is the book for you ... The author’s comedic talents are formidable and the characters he creates hard to forget.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Ward’s The Social Lives of Animals explores, in extensive and often exhilarating detail, the many ways in which animals, like humans, \'hate to be alone\' ... A fish researcher by training, Mr. Ward is particularly good about aquatic creatures, but he has an irrepressible and infectious interest in virtually everything that creeps, crawls, climbs, swims, jumps, runs or flies, from bumblebees to baboons to African elephants ... Reading Mr. Ward’s book is like entering a maze, too, with surprises awaiting the reader at every turn. What holds it all together is the author’s natural gift for storytelling and penchant for punchy, provocative one-liners ... Here, too, strength lies in numbers—the number of facts, that is, likely to give pause even to the most die-hard believer in human superiority.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Rhodes...adds much useful context and detail to Mr. Wilson’s narrative [in his autobiography], even if he isn’t always able to match his subject’s boundless energy and charm ... Scientist offers a chronological guide to Mr. Wilson’s proliferating research interests, providing succinct, nuanced summaries of some of his major insights, enriched by frequent forays into the history of modern biology. Among the most delightful sections in Scientist is Mr. Rhodes’s reconstruction of the battle between Mr. Wilson and his Harvard colleague James Watson ... But there’s just such a mass of material that Mr. Rhodes’s list remains partial at best ... Granted, Mr. Wilson is a tough subject, as elusive as one of his rare ant species ... Readers will be grateful, though, for the many illuminating details Mr. Rhodes includes[.]
RaveThe Wall Street JournalWhat a pleasure these days to come across a book that unabashedly, cheerfully celebrates the lasting power of literature ... the first in the rising tower of Mr. Bate’s works to address an American author, seems a very personal book, pulsating with the freshness of new discovery. Energized by his sources, Mr. Bate confirms what Plutarch, the ancient progenitor of the dual-biography genre, once set out to prove, too, namely that genius leaps across centuries and cultures. He reminds us of the high price literature exacts from its devotees and of the triumphs it hands them as well, victories that will seem paltry only to those who don’t care to look or read: some of the greatest poems ever written in any language, pages of prose as luminously alive as that green world Jay Gatsby found in his dreams.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... beautiful ... a book so saturated with detail that the reader can hear the gravel crunching under her characters’ feet ... The mountain of biographies written about the \'Little Corporal\' must, at this point, be higher than the Alps he famously crossed in 1800, but her horticultural angle allows Ms. Scurr to tell the endlessly fascinating story of his life anew ... the author successfully complicates our image of the man Tolstoy dubbed an \'executioner of peoples\'.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... rich ... where Barthes always felt the painful prick of his own mortality, Mr. Dyer’s See/Saw finds the delicate promise of new life ... We see anew what someone else once saw, a dizzying experience to which the clever title of the book alludes. Averse to jargon, Mr. Dyer never strays too far away from an ordinary viewer’s experience. A proud interloper in the compartmentalized halls of academe, he writes for our enjoyment as well as his own ... the 52 scintillating essays in See/Saw provide reassuring evidence that Mr. Dyer will keep the ink flowing ... The author of more than a dozen works of fiction and criticism, Mr. Dyer has cultivated an unmistakable narrative voice, by turns lofty and self-deprecating, acerbic and arch, dismissive and sympathetic ... If these ruminations strike you as a little overwrought, that is Mr. Dyer’s intention. His readings, entertaining, nuanced and irreverent, never pretend to uncover any single truth about a photograph. Instead, they are an attentive viewer’s creative attempts—always incomplete, often fantastical, sometimes wrong—to determine what a photograph might mean.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... an ecstatic romp through several centuries of art, literature, and natural history. The name Dürer might conjure images of dark, narrow streets and half-timbered houses in old German towns, ancient Gothic script, and woodcuts so finely executed they take forever to figure out. Mr. Hoare gives us instead a thoroughly modern Dürer, a dreamer, a visionary, our contemporary ... Mr. Hoare’s most experimental work to date, there is water everywhere, and the great mystery of life remains intact. Sometimes Mr. Hoare might dispense a little too quickly with knowable things: There are mistakes in his quotations ... Yet I doubt that any other writer has grasped so deeply the feral, sensual undercurrent of Dürer’s art or has felt so acutely the artist’s attunement to the fierce animals that live in his works ... Mr. Hoare’s book is best read as a fiendishly erudite daydream, in which there are no boundaries and anything becomes possible. The author invites the reader to step inside his capacious mind, a place so magical that Albrecht Dürer may fuse with his 19th-century admirer Oscar Wilde ... It is perhaps Dürer’s greatest achievement (and now also Mr. Hoare’s) to have shown us that this fantastical world is not so strange after all, that, in its fearsome splendor, it must be ours too.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalWhy did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature?\' sighed Christie in a 1937 article ... Agatha Christie’s Poirot, a one-stop guide to all things Poirot, an exhaustive catalog of all manifestations of the little Belgian in any conceivable medium, from novel to story to radio play to movie to graphic novel to computer game, provides us with a beautifully succinct answer ... Expertly summarizing Christie’s novels, Mr. Aldridge is always careful not to disclose their endings, which yields some artfully wrought sentences tiptoeing around the secrets they can’t share—an effective strategy that will inspire readers to turn to Poirot novels they don’t yet know or no longer remember ... packed with...stories as well as excellent excerpts from contemporary reviews of Christie’s novels. A gifted storyteller familiar with everything Christie has ever written, Mr. Aldridge knows even more than he lets on, occasionally placing, as if he were himself a crime writer, little textual clues only true Christie devotees will recognize ... In Mr. Aldridge’s perceptive assessment, \'The character of Poirot is bigger than one man, perhaps even bigger than his creator.\'
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... effervescent ... If caracaras were able to read—and immersing myself in Mr. Meiburg’s vivid prose I sometimes fancied they just might be—this book would give them a lot of information about that exceptional creature named Jonathan Meiburg ... Mr. Meiburg usefully reminds us that the ancestors of caracaras roamed the skies well before anything resembling us had come along ... Of course, simply as a natural history of the caracaras, A Most Remarkable Creature delivers splendidly, too ... Mr. Meiburg is equally skilled at evoking the challenging environment of the Falklands as he is at placing his readers in the midst of a teeming jungle in Guyana, home of the elusive red-throated caracara. A lavishly talented nature writer, Mr. Meiburg weaves a seamless narrative from the most diverse observations ... Ever wondered what a pink-toed tarantula feels like after shedding its exoskeleton? Mr. Meiburg certainly has, and with him as a guide you think you can almost feel, for an instant, that fresh skin hardening in the forest’s cool evening air ... None of these details are extraneous to Mr. Meiburg’s narrative purpose. In fact, each of them leads us, alongside Mr. Meiburg’s party, deeper into the forest; his quest becomes ours, too ... A master of descriptive nuance, Mr. Meiburg can also be wonderfully concise ... In his other life, Mr. Meiburg is the lead singer of the well-known indie rock band Shearwater, and his beautifully written book shares in the zanily meditative, wistful ambivalence of their songs.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... riveting ... Mr. Strevens doesn’t hide his light under a bushel ... Mr. Strevens sustains his polemical fireworks with a steady succession of examples drawn from the history of science ... worth reading for the quality of Mr. Strevens’s prose alone, his crystal-clear, unfussy sentences, the crisp metaphors and many excellent quips ... Despite the author’s enthusiasm for machinelike predictability, The Knowledge Machine is full of such surprises ... As a hard-nosed, wonderfully timely plea for taking science seriously, for allowing scientists to do their work without interference, The Knowledge Machine is unparalleled. But, as the sheer urgency of Mr. Strevens’s tone and his provocative descriptions also demonstrate, it’s difficult to write objectively about objectivity. Try as we might, we cannot ever fully separate the machine from the machinist, philosophy from the philosopher or, for that matter, science from the scientist.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... magnificent ... a spell of seven finely crafted chapters ... a prodigiously detailed ode to the medieval (and, it turns out, very modern) impulse \'to tinker, to redesign, to incrementally improve or upgrade technology.\' By the end of Mr. Falk’s book, even previously indifferent readers will, I promise, never want to use \'medieval\' as a slur word again ... Medieval instruments are feats of technological ingenuity, and the reader is grateful when Mr. Falk emerges from the thicket of technical details to administer an encouraging pat on the shoulder ... it occurred to me that Mr. Falk’s The Light Ages is written in similar fashion, though as a friendly invitation, not as a decree—as if John Westwyk and Seb Falk, separated in time but not in spirit, were joining hands while guiding us along; or as if The Light Ages were Mr. Falk’s own clever astrolabe, seeking to make that shimmering light in the distance look, as well it should, wonderfully close and luminously real.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... a quirky, oddly touching book that allows us to step, for a few moments, inside the world of a practicing Enlightenment scientist, to sit beside him as he fans the flames of a candle with his little blowpipe, waiting for that small mineral in front of him to melt and yield its secrets ... Equipped with an extraordinary talent for presenting complex scientific facts lucidly, Mr. Turner revives more than a dozen of Smithson’s experiments ... even Mr. Turner’s meticulous reconstructions cannot dispel the sense that, whatever he tackled, James Smithson inevitably missed greatness by a matter of inches.
Edward D. Melillo
RaveThe Wall Street JournalSurprisingly—and rather brilliantly—more than half of Mr. Melillo’s book is not about monarchs or mosquitoes but about creatures far less relatable, though they have been part of our lives for centuries ... Mr. Melillo is a witty and eloquent guide through the fraught terrain of human-insect interactions, able to write as lucidly about the white-eyed mutant fruitfly as the four movements of Serenade in A (1925), which Igor Stravinsky custom-composed for 10-inch shellac records, a three-minute movement per side. Mr. Melillo is at his most inspiring, however, when he exalts the scientists who have rejected the view that there’s little in the world of insects to remind us of our own.
Nicholas A Basbanes
RaveThe Wall Street JournalNicholas Basbanes’s superbly sympathetic Cross of Snow is not, as his publisher claims, the first major Longfellow biography to appear in 50 years...But it is, perhaps, the biography Longfellow himself would have most liked to read. Absorbing the underlying message of Longfellow’s poetry, Mr. Basbanes writes about him the way a friend would, with generosity, gentleness and grace ... Mr. Basbanes never pummels his sources into revealing more than they will yield ... Buoyed by Mr. Basbane’s palpable enthusiasm over his discoveries, the reader feels warmly invited to enter the author’s charmed circle of friendship ... [focuses] much of his book on Longfellow’s far less buttoned-up second wife, the brilliant Fanny Appleton, daughter of one of the richest men in New England ... Mr. Basbanes’s singular achievement in Cross of Snow is to bring this remarkable woman back to life. He writes about her the way Longfellow would have, with respect, admiration and, yes, a lover’s eye. But he is also happy to let Fanny speak for herself ... Mr. Basbanes’s book, marvelously rich in biographical detail, has only limited space for the poetry. But much remains to be discovered there
Patrik Svensson, Trans. by Agnes Broomé
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] captivating debut, congenially translated by Agnes Broomé ... Tinged with melancholy ... The Book of Eels is, in the end, not really about eels but about life itself, and that makes it different from other recent books on the subject. Mr. Svensson mixes chapters about the eel’s natural history—or, rather, the history of clumsy human attempts to understand it—with finely observed autobiographical vignettes devoted to his own childhood memories of eel-fishing with his father. From these memories, saturated with intense, sensory detail, Mr. Svensson’s father emerges as a creature as magical and determined as any eel from the Sargasso Sea ...In a way, Mr. Svensson’s book is another version of his father’s cabin, full of stories and of a size just right, the size only memory and love can make: a place where secrets will always remain secrets and grief dissolves into the shimmering waters of the lake outside, the author’s own Sargasso Sea, forever stocked with shiny eels, all within easy reach—yet not.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWhat a delightful book, and what a delightfully provocative title ... a memoir masking as a biography ... Incongruously but very effectively, Ms. Miller’s book interweaves often intimate details from her own life, including a failed suicide attempt, with milestones from David Starr Jordan’s sheer unstoppable ascent to professional glory ... Leavened by a healthy dose of self-irony, Ms. Miller wields this familiar format with panache, spinning a tale so seductive that I read her book in one sitting.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... thoroughly engrossing, meticulously researched and well-illustrated ... Despite the book’s title, there are no fairy-tale heroes in it, which testifies to the subtlety of Mr. Hochschild’s narrative imagination ... There is indeed a literary intensity to much of Rebel Cinderella, and Mr. Hochschild is as excellent at invoking such personal confrontations as he is at summarizing, with epigrammatic clarity, complex historical developments ... Mr. Hochschild reminds us of the continuing disparity between the rich and the poor in modern U.S. society. But his book is not a cautionary tale; if there is anything to be learned from the broken lives of Rose Pastor and Graham Phelps Stokes, it’s that being human is a messy business. Of Mr. Hochschild’s two main characters, the uncharismatic Graham with his unearned wealth, less prince than princeling, bold enough to marry Rose and too conventional to tolerate her independence, perhaps seems the more familiar figure today. By contrast, Rose, more rebel than Cinderella, gloriously passionate even when she was wrong, belongs to another, fiercer time.
Gunnar Decker, Trans. by Peter Lewis
PositiveThe Weekly StandardFor Gunnar Decker, a supremely empathetic biographer, the fact that Hesse wasn’t particularly pleasant to be with is a challenge rather than a problem. A master of biographical ventriloquism, he peppers his prose, congenially translated by Peter Lewis, with frequent exclamation marks meant to signal agreement with his crotchety subject and delivers pages of indirect interior monologue that would have done Flaubert or Zola proud, ranging from the basic (\'What was he to do?\') to the philosophically elevated (\'How could he ever turn this chaos into an order that he trusted?\') ... Decker’s goal is to make us like Hesse, and the fact that he almost succeeds is a testament to his skill.
PanThe Wall Street JournalCharles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker is less a biography than an indictment of a man he finds wanting in so many respects that the reader wonders how Mr. Wilson could stand spending so much time writing about him … In Mr. Wilson’s hands, Darwin is the veritable snake in the garden of cultural history, a corrupter of minds who deserves to be seen clearly for what he always was: a footnote in the history of science … At first I found reading Mr. Wilson’s laundry list of offenses strangely addictive, like studying the ‘Wanted’ posters that hang in the Post Office. As I carried on, however, pleasure slowly gave way to annoyance. Mr. Wilson’s scientific misunderstandings, of which there are many, seem to come straight out of the creationist playbook.